Coastal loggers caught between company and union in seven-month strike.

Nelson Bennett
Business Vancouver
January 17, 2020

Premier John Horgan addressed out-of-work B.C. logging contractors Thursday, January 16, at an annual convention, and he did not come empty handed.

Horgan, who has become a regular keynote speaker at the annual Truck Loggers Association (TLA) convention, acknowledged that logging contractors on the coast are in crisis, due to a seven-month strike that has shut down a significant share of the coastal logging and lumber industry.

Horgan announced $5 million in bridge funding to help logging contractors through one of the worst labour-related downturns they have ever faced, and acknowledged that they probably expected his government to intervene in a strike – now in its seventh month – that has shut down Western Forest Products (TSX:WEF) lumber mills, and the logging operations that feed them.

The Coastal Logging Equipment Support Trust will provide bridge loans to help contractors who must pay for equipment and employees, with no money coming in.

“The elephant in the room is abundantly clear,” Horgan said. “A labour disruption of seven months is unprecedented in B.C. history.”

Loggers are caught in the middle of a labour dispute between Western Forest Products and the United Steelworkers (USW), who went on strike in July 2019. The strike affects 3,000 workers on the B.C. coast. That’s just the mill workers. But independent logging contractors and their employees have also seen work come to standstill.

Outgoing executive director David Elstone estimates that Western Forest Products employs roughly 200 logging contractors, and each of those contractors will have employees to pay. There are also hundreds of people employed on the coast in the service industry. Communities like Port McNeill and Campbell River, which are still heavily dependent on forestry, are suffering.

“This is not just USW workers and Western,” Elstone said. “This is contractors, who have to put out a tonne of money just to get going again. There are thousands of people.

“Before a log even gets touched, signing bonuses have to be paid out, you have to fuel up their vehicles, they have to pay for their insurances. That’s a hell of a lot of money just to get going.”

Horgan said his labour minister, Harry Baines, has been trying to work with the two sides, and said he personally has urged both West Fraser and the USW “to get on with it.”

But if truck loggers attending the convention were expecting to hear that Horgan’s government planned to intervene in the strike, they were disappointed.

He made no commitment to intervene in what he said is a private sector dispute. Instead, he urged loggers to “speak their minds” to the executives of Western Forest Products and USW.

Horgan also talked about government policies aimed at reducing log exports and encouraging more domestic use of engineered wood products.

“We need to reduce our approach to high volume and focus on high value,” Horgan said.

Elstone said the bridge funding being offered by the province is welcome relief, but said what his members really had hoped to hear – and didn’t – was a commitment to end the strike and stop the unrelenting erosion of the working forest on the B.C. coast.

“Right now they’re working through this old-growth strategic review,” Elstone said, adding that he fears that even more restrictions on coastal logging may be coming.

“We can’t see further erosion of our forests,” Elstonesaid. “We already have 55% of the old growth on Crown land protected. Enough is enough.

“Fifty per cent of the province is in parks. That doesn’t include all the old growth management areas, the riparian areas, the ungulate winter range areas, the protected areas. We just had 5,000 hectares taken out in December in the Skagit. It’s a death by a thousand cuts. So I would have loved to see the premier talk about the working forest and how we have to make a stand.”

When the strike does end and Western Forest ramps back up, Elstone said he fears there may be a worker shortage.

He suspects a number of sawmill workers and loggers have already left to go work on big projects, like pipelines. And he said young people just entering the workforce may balk at the idea of working for an industry that can suffer strikes that go on for seven months.

“We’re going to have one hell of a skilled labour shortage once the clouds clear on the strike and markets get better.”

nbennett@biv.com

@nbennett_biv

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